Matt Hancock to hold talks with Tory rebels over coronavirus laws

Ministers will hold crisis talks with the ringleader of a Tory revolt as Boris Johnson seeks to head off a damaging row over the scrutiny of coronavirus regulations.

The Prime Minister is under mounting pressure to give Parliament greater power to debate and vote on coronavirus restrictions, with more than 50 Tory MPs signalling they could rebel on the matter.

MPs will vote on Wednesday on whether to renew the powers in the Coronavirus Act, with Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the influential Tory backbench 1922 Committee, leading calls for ministers to consult Parliament before introducing new curbs on people’s freedoms.

Some 52 Conservatives publicly back the amendment, enough to wipe out Mr Johnson’s Commons majority if it is put to a vote and the opposition parties support it.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock agreed to meet Sir Graham “to see what further progress can be made” on the issue, saying the Government was “looking at further ways to ensure the House can be properly involved in the process in advance where possible”.

“I strongly agree with the need for us in this House to have the appropriate level of scrutiny,” he told MPs.

But he said the Government had to have the ability to act quickly where necessary.

Former Cabinet minister Chris Grayling told Mr Hancock: “Before we embark upon measures that affect everyone, as opposed to firefighting in individual areas, it is really important that this House has the chance to really scrutinise and hold to account and challenge.”

Seven-day rate of new Covid-19 cases
Seven-day rate of new Covid-19 cases

Mr Hancock replied: “The question is how we can have the appropriate level of scrutiny whilst also making sure that we can move fast where that is necessary.”

Conservative rebels seized upon an assessment by academics at University College London (UCL) which concluded that “Parliament has been consistently sidelined during the pandemic”.

Tory former minister Steve Baker, one of the Conservatives signed up to the amendment, told the PA news agency he believed the Government will be forced to back down.

“I have always hoped we would find a way through to prior parliamentary approval,” he said.

“I’m more optimistic now the UCL Constitution Unit has said we are right.”

No singing. No dancing. 🥺


— Steve Baker MP (@SteveBakerHW) September 28, 2020

Mr Baker also likened some of the Government’s coronavirus restrictions to George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, specifically referencing a ban on singing and dancing in bars, cafes and restaurants.

A blog post by the UCL’s Professor Meg Russell and Lisa James said: “MPs have genuine cause for complaint.”

They pointed to the new rules which came into force on Monday, but which only appeared in regulation form on Sunday.

“Only yesterday regulations on self-isolation were published, coming into effect just seven hours later, and imposing potential £10,000 fines; yet, despite media briefings eight days previously, these were not debated in Parliament,” they said.

“Such cases raise clear political questions, but also legal ones: as the underlying legislation allows ministers to bypass Parliament only if a measure is so urgent that there is no time for debate.”

They added that decisions to sideline Parliament were part of a “longer-running trend” under Mr Johnson.

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson

“In his first six months as Prime Minister, Johnson cancelled or indefinitely postponed three Liaison Committee evidence sessions, unlawfully prorogued Parliament, and introduced a Withdrawal Agreement Act which – unlike its predecessor – gave Parliament no real oversight of this year’s Brexit negotiations,” they said.

“All this already suggested a reluctance to face parliamentary scrutiny.”

Former chief whip Mark Harper said he would add his weight to Sir Graham’s amendment unless ministers convinced him they were willing to change course.

In the Commons, he told Mr Hancock: “We need to scrutinise the detail of the legislation before it comes into force and give our assent to it, not I’m afraid just allow (you) to do so by decree.”

The Prime Minister has already committed to “regular statements and debates” on coronavirus in the Commons and promised that MPs will be able to question the Government’s scientific advisers more regularly.